Save the Planet—and Your Wallet

Residential energy efficiency in the U.S. has a huge opportunity for improvement. Though homes are more efficient today, they are larger with more stuff in them, increasing energy demand. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated in its Annual Energy Outlook 2017 that the residential sector used about 1,410 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity in 2016. In 2012, the annual average bill was $1,945 for heating, cooling, appliances, electronics, and lighting. Are you making the best use of your kilowatt hours? Gretchen Macht, assistant professor of sustainability and human systems engineering in the College of Engineering, says there are many low-cost ways to drive down your energy use. “They aren’t sexy,” she says. “But when your bill is much less, it’s really sexy.”

Download the Department of Energy’s Energy Saver Guide – 44 pages of no-cost, low-cost ideas to save money on energy use: lower the temperature of your water heater; plug televisions and other devices into power strips that you can turn on/off when not in use; take short showers over long baths; switch lights to LEDs; install low-flow faucets and shower heads. “Do the small things first,” Macht says “A lot of little things can go a long way.”

Invest in an energy audit. There are online tools for a DIY assessment or you can contact your local utility or an energy contractor to determine where you use and lose the most energy, and which improvements will deliver the biggest benefits. Ultimately, air sealing, more insulation, high efficiency water heaters and mechanical systems are retrofits that can increase any home’s energy efficiency. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that energy efficiency upgrades can save homeowners 5–30 percent on their monthly energy bills.

Buy ENERGY STAR products. In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched ENERGY STAR, a voluntary energy efficiency program. You can find the blue ENERGY STAR labels on everything from clothes dryers to computers to decorative light strings—products in more than 70 categories that meet the energy efficiency requirements in the ENERGY STAR product specifications. ENERGY STAR products are often eligible for federal tax credits, sales tax exemptions or rebates. The EPA estimates that the program saved businesses, organizations, and consumers $24 billion in 2012.

Buy part or all of your energy from renewable sources. Most utilities nationwide offer residential customers the option to buy some of their power from wind and solar sources. Sometimes it costs a little extra, but some companies even provide up to 50 percent renewable energy at no additional cost. Macht argues that it’s a small cost to pay for drastically reducing your carbon footprint.

Generate your own power. Many utility companies also have programs for homeowners who want to install residential solar panels. They can walk you through how to choose a system that is appropriate for your home and set up a net-metering billing arrangement. Net-metering allows you to sell back to the grid any solar-generated electricity you don’t use. Some states have net-metering laws, regulations or voluntary programs—their terms vary widely. Instead of paying an electric bill, how about the power company sending you a check at the end of the year?